The Burning Girls (2021) – C.J. Tudor

Title:The Burning Girls
Author:C.J. Tudor
Publisher/s:Michael Joseph/Penguin Random House
Date of publication:2021
Star Rating:⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
Disclaimer:Penguin Random House kindly sent me a copy of this novel in exchange for an honest review.

“Belief should be a conscious choice, not something you’re brainwashed into when you’re too young to understand or question it. Faith isn’t something you pass down like an heirloom. It’s not tangible or absolute. Not even for a priest. It’s something you have to keep working at, like marriage or children.”

There is absolutely no doubt in my mind at all that The Burning Girls is an ode to horror and supernatural author Stephen King, to his novel Salem’s Lot, to the horror community, and to ’80s pop culture. Yes, it’s set in today’s world, but somehow that seems secondary to Tudor’s atmospheric writing, and the fictional town of Chapel Croft and all that happens there.

The small village of Chapel Croft is exactly that…small. The people that live there have lived there forever, and those that have the audacity to move there will always be seen as newcomers, or…outsiders. This is exactly what happens when Reverend Jack Brooks and her daughter Flo move to the little village from Nottingham. They are meant to be starting afresh after a tragedy that occurred at Jack’s last church but have instead found themselves entangled in something very dark and possibly terrifying. Their arrival is met with suspicion, and before they can unpack their bags and settle into the new house, Jack and Flo learn all about the town’s obsession with the martyrs that were burned to death in the town 500 years ago, and how the village commemorates those burned at the stake by placing little straw dolls at the grave-sites. They also learn the shocking truth that the previous vicar hanged himself inside the chapel.

If that isn’t creepy enough Flo starts to see two of the martyrs appear to her in visions. The girls are missing limbs and have been set alight, and it is said that only those that are in trouble will see the Burning Girls. As a teenager taken away from her old home, old school, and old friends, Flo is understandably frustrated and angry at having to be the ‘new girl’, and being teased and bullied by some of the local kids – especially Rosie Harper, a member of the Harper clan, a wealthy farming family related to the famous martyrs, and regular donors to the very same chapel that Jack is now in charge of.

Other than struggling to fit in and a lack of working WiFi, not everything in Chapel Croft is absolutely terrible. Quite by accident Flo meets and befriends Wrigley, who is the same age as her, and shares her fascination with the spooky and macabre. He’s even taken her on a tour of the abandoned house in the woods behind their new house and being an amateur photographer and Stephen King fan, this is pretty much the perfect date for a teenage girl who resembles Winona Ryder’s character in the film Beetlejuice.

Whilst Flo is battling adolescence and trying not to see spooky girls engulfed in fire, Jack has been thrown headlong into a mystery that began with the gift of an exorcism kit when she first arrived. With no idea who sent the strange (and disturbing) gift, Jack’s first mission is to empty out the basement of her new home, which is filled with boxes containing the late vicar’s belongings. It turns out he was investigating the disappearance of two local girls, Merry Lane and Joy Harris, 30 years ago from Chapel Croft. The teenagers had apparently planned to run away, and even though this seems like the most obvious conclusion, the late vicar seems to have believed something else happened to the girls.

Whilst Flo is getting to know Wrigley better, and trying desperately not to resent her mother for taking her away from her old life, Jack is forming her own opinion of the village’s residents, who are reluctant to accept a new vicar and a female vicar. Realizing she’s accidentally stumbled across a bit of a mystery, Jack starts to question the deeply suspicious villagers and continues to do so even when it starts to feel as though her job and life may be in danger.

Something in Chapel Croft is not quite right – in fact, there seems to be a lot of ‘offish’ things about the village, and while the reader may be anticipating a train wreck, they are also witnessing the third voice in the story, the unknown man that has been following Jack and her daughter since before they left Nottingham.

Tudor’s gorgeously spooky novel is the perfect answer for anyone looking for something modern with a vintage-horror twist. The dialogue (and relationship) between Jack and Flo is loving and witty, and perfectly representative of a mother and teenage daughter who both appreciate a good pop culture reference. The Burning Girls is also a brilliant bag of mysteries that we know we’ll probably only get the answer to at the end of the book.

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